My weekend with an Amazon Echo

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Credit: Amazon

After quite a long wait, my Amazon Echo finally arrived last week. When I first heard about the Echo I referred to it as Siri combined with a bluetooth speaker and now that I've used it for a few days I still think that's a pretty accurate description.

Echo is a fairly hefty cylinder 3.27" in diameter and 9.25" tall. It has an AC adapter and no batteries; this isn't intended to be a portable device. It comes with a remote (that looks just like the Fire TV remote so if you have both devices you might want to mark one of them) and a magnetic remote holder that you can stick on a wall or refrigerator or somewhere (an included reusable adhesion pad is supposed to stick it to non-metallic surfaces).

Our apartment has a window in the wall between kitchen and living room, so we placed the Echo there, figuring that way we could use if from either room. So far I feel like it gets the most use from us when we're in the kitchen, probably because we're busy then. When we're in the living room we're generally relaxing and tend to have a phone or tablet at hand.

Set up was pretty easy. Plug Echo in, install a companion app (if you don't have a smartphone there's a browser version ) and you use that to input your WiFi password and set up various preferences for your profile. The Echo does need access to a WiFi network in order to work its magic.

But what does it do? Well it's like a personal assistant. You ask it things, it gives you answers. It'll also set a timer, add items to a list, and play you music or the news.

How useful any of this is depends on you. I can't help but feel like Echo is a very personal experience. So far I like it an awful lot, but I think it's worth noting that I've had an Xbox One with Kinect for over a year now and I've gotten past that awkward stage of using voice commands where you feel a little bit silly talking into thin air.

When we first set up the Echo we peppered it with questions. Out of the box the device's trigger word is "Alexa" though you can change that to "Amazon" if you wish. We stuck with Alexa (and I'll be happy if I get through this post without referring to the Echo as 'she' because in day-to-day use we refer to it as Alexa, not the Echo).

"Alexa, who wrote The Hunger Games?"
"Alexa, what's 8 times 7?"
"Alexa, what's the square root of 121?"
"Alexa, who directed Star Wars?"
"Alexa, who starred in The Exorcist?"

We got answers to all of these with no problems. The Echo's voice recognition is very good for both of us. Most of my voice experience is with the Xbox One and with it you have to give commands in a fairly flat voice. The Xbox also seems better at understanding my voice than it does my girlfriend's. Neither is the case with the Echo. Either of us can talk to it naturally and it hears us accurately.

Anyway once it had answered the above questions we decided to get more creative.

"Alexa, what is the Prime Directive?" That's a Star Trek reference and we wanted the Echo to recite Prime Directive to us, but instead we were told the Prime Directive is a 1990 (Star Trek) novel written by Judith and Garfield Reeves Stevens. The information was accurate but not exactly the answer we were looking for; that's one issue with the Echo, there's no way to give it context.

"Alexa, what are the three rules of robotics?" The Echo didn't understand this question at all, which caused us to be very afraid! (In case you're not familiar, the three rules of robotics were coined by Isaac Asimov and they're a system designed to prevent robots from doing harm to humans. Since the Echo has no appendages we're probably safe.)

All of these questions also get sent to the companion app so you can check to see what Echo thought you said (and you'll be asked if it was correct in order to provide feedback to the developers), and you can send that question on to Bing with a tap, which is useful if the Echo couldn't come up with an answer for you.

Asking the Echo random questions was amusing for about 10 minutes then we went on with our day. My girlfriend was making dinner and she used the timer function.

"Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes."

That worked well, as did status updates.

"Alexa, how much longer on the timer?"

But then we got too fancy:

"Alexa, tell me when there's 5 minutes left on the timer." failed. The Echo interpreted that as "Set a timer for 5 minutes" which deleted the timer that was running. Good thing we had a backup.

In general Echo seems bad with future items.

"Alexa, when does The Avengers: Age of Ultron come out?" wasn't understood.

Sunday morning I asked:

"Alexa, what time is the Super Bowl on?" and Echo gave me the current time and ignored the Super Bowl part. "Alexa, when is the Super Bowl?" worked, sort of. Echo told me it was on Sunday, February 1st, but didn't offer a time.

Sometimes the Echo is technically correct but not helpful.

When I asked "Alexa, how do you spell 'rhyme'?" the answer was R I M E which is true but I'd argue that rime is a less common word than rhyme.

When I said "Alexa, remind me to get my oil changed." the Echo added that to a To-Do list, and when I told it we needed eggs it added eggs to a shopping list. This is great but you need to be willing to use the companion app for your to-do and shopping lists. Hopefully in the future you'll be able to link this functionality to other apps instead. I'd really like the Echo to be able to check my calendar for meetings, and add to-do items to Wunderlist for me.

So what went wrong? Not much. The very first night we had the Echo it stopped working. I'd speak at it and its light would flash but I got no response. This went on for maybe a minute and then it 'woke up' and started working properly. That hasn't happened again since. I'm not sure if it was downloading an update, or if my WiFi had gone wonky for a minute or what happened. I'm just glad it hasn't repeated.

Saturday night out of nowhere the Echo repeated its statement that it was adding eggs to the shopping list, something I'd told it to do a day prior. That was slightly unsettling, but also hasn't repeated.

I don't want to focus too much on the problems and the things Echo doesn't do, though, because it does enough to really make me happy to have it, particularly in the morning. Now when I go downstairs in the morning to take the dog out I ask Alexa what the temperature is, and she tells me so I can dress accordingly. When I get back in and I'm making coffee, the Echo plays me the news from NPR and the BBC via TuneIn, then goes into a text-to-speech version of further headlines (you can configure what news you get in the companion app).

This is all stuff I could do with my phone but it's nice not to have to stop what I'm doing, even for as long as it takes to dig my phone out of my pocket and wake it up. (I'm also not someone who carries his phone around when I'm at home, so it's not always handy.) In the kitchen in particular it's useful since my hands might be wet from washing up, or maybe I'm busy stirring a pot. Having voice controls is really nice in these cases.

Now for the final question: how does the Echo do as a bluetooth speaker? First, I'm not an audiophile so take my comments on the quality of a speaker with a grain of salt, but the bottom line is that it sounds fine. You're probably not going to want to use it for your primary sound system but it sounds about as good as you'd expect a small-ish bluetooth speaker to sound.

The more elaborate answer is, it depends. Ironically I've had sound issues when playing music from my Amazon account. Some tracks sound great, others sound really muddy. I don't notice this issue playing Amazon music from a browser (though to be honest I don't do that very often) so I'm not yet sure what's going on. I paired the Echo with my phone and played some Pandora through it and got consistently good results, so whatever the issue is with (some) Amazon music, it doesn't seem to be hardware related.

That said, if you're primarily interested in a bluetooth speaker to play music I'm not sure I'd recommend the Echo. We have a Creative Labs D100 speaker in the kitchen. You can get one for $40 from Amazon and, to me at least, it sounds a little better than the Echo when it comes to playing music.

If, however, you want an always-on device that can help you out in a lot of minor ways as you go about your day, and play music with passable sound quality as well, then the Echo is for you.

Now let's talk about price. If you're an Amazon Prime member the Echo is $100. If you're not, it's $200. Clearly if you're not a Prime member Amazon would rather you spend $100 to become one and another $100 to get the Echo, rather than spend $200 for the Echo alone. I think $100 is a good price for this device as it stands today, but $200 seems like too much.

Of course first you have to request an invitation to buy one. I requested an invitation in early November, but didn't get an offer to purchase until January 6th. Initially my ship date was mid-February but it was moved up twice and it finally arrived on Thursday, January 29th. I have friends who are looking at ship dates in April or May! It might make the most sense to wait until the Echo is readily available and then see whether these devices have staying power or if they turn out to be a short-term curiosity for most users.

Thus far, I'm a happy customer and my expectation is that the device will continue to improve over the months to come. As soon as they become readily available I'll be getting a second Echo for the bedroom. I'm looking forward to playing music or getting the latest news without even having to lift my head from the pillow!

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